Adams’s departure as SF leader about politics more than history
Analysis: Changes to leadership and coalition stance aimed at boosting appeal in Republic
The announcement by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams that he is to step down from the position in the coming months marks the second major generational change in Irish politics this year, after the retirement of Enda Kenny six months ago.
The forthcoming change in Sinn Féin is more significant and more far-reaching.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has seen a mild uplift in poll numbers and the Government certainly looks and sounds fresher. But it would be hard to say that he has wrought any deep transformation, either on the Government he chairs or the party he leads. Policy is not different in any significant way to what it was under Kenny.
But the retirement of Adams – after a preposterous 34 years as party leader – means that the man who more than anyone else created modern Sinn Féin is exiting the stage. He departs not just as a consequence of advancing age but in an effort to create a political opportunity for Sinn Féin to exploit.
Its success in doing so will depend on the party’s willingness to present more than just a different face. The party’s ardfheis in the RDS in Dublin last weekend was about history, perhaps. But it was more about politics.
Sinn Féin delegates were given plenty of old-time religion at it. Mary Lou McDonald, heir presumptive to Adams’s crown, began proceedings last Friday night by telling reporters she would never distance herself from the IRA’s actions.
Displays of the hunger strikers adorned the walls of the RDS. Conference speakers hailed the heroes of the republican struggle against British oppression, unionist intransigence and Free-State apathy. Tributes to Martin McGuinness dwelled on his role as an IRA volunteer and commander. Adams summoned Martin Ferris, the old soldier, to his side as he reached his valedictory peroration, the Boys of the Old Brigade standing together one last time. The hall shook with unapologetic endorsement for past deeds, admitted or not.
Fine Gael, said McDonald, “believes homelessness, poverty and inequality are fine as long as their friends and the markets see their incomes rise”.
“Fianna Fáil,” she continued “are paid-up members of Leo’s Republic of Opportunists.”
It is high time, she said, to end the rule of “the elites” and their “political wing” in the Dáil. All good knockabout, populist stuff, and the delegates hooted their approval.
But look behind the rhetoric. McDonald and her colleagues were dialling up the justification of the “armed struggle” just as the martial generation, led by Adams and Ferris and rest, is stepping back. They amplified the attacks on the “corrupt elite” of the southern state just as they were opening a door to co-operation with that elite in a coalition government in Dublin.
In an essay in his recent collection of writings Never Give Up, Adams pours scorn on the efforts by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to promote themselves as the parties of the responsible centre, insisting that Sinn Féin’s “radical republican politics” is the only opposition the “conservatism” of the big parties. A motion passed last weekend means Sinn Féin might contemplate a deal with one of them.
The weekend’s rhetoric was covering fire for two important strategic moves – the retirement of Adams and the coalition motion which abandoned the party’s previous ban on participation in a minority government.
The priority for the republican movement throughout the Adams era – right from the start – has been to maintain its unity; between the political and military wings, between the North and the Republic, and now between young and old. Adams’s great skill and achievement has been to maintain that unity while utterly transforming the organisation.
McDonald will also prioritise unity above all else. But that will become harder.
Party sources say she has spent a lot of time in the North and around the country inhaling the spirit of the organisation. But the demands and priorities of politics in the two parts of the island are different. The fact is that the two societies are different and the relative position of Sinn Féin in the two polities is different. It is hard to see how that does not become more apparent with Adams’s departure.
McDonald clearly has Adams’s imprimatur – she has, after all, been at his side for a decade and a half now – and that will carry enough authority in the North.
But the imperative in the Republic is precisely the opposite: to show distance from Adams, to emphasise change. There is, after all, not much point in changing leader and then telling everyone that nothing has changed, is there?
Sinn Féin’s growth in the Republic has been steady rather than spectacular. It grew a little in the general election of 2011 and a bit more in the election of 2016. But it has not had the transformational breakthrough that would change the structure of Irish politics and give it the chance it craves of leading governments in Dublin and Belfast at the same time.
To achieve that it needs to broaden the party’s appeal and reduce the negative lens through which many voters in the Republic see it. Adams’s retirement and the move on coalition are designed to further these objectives.
The party judges these voters are receptive to its messages – about fairness, equality,public services, health, housing, education and tax. It figures that McDonald is a better vector than Adams for them.
These voters are interested in more than protest votes; they are interested in voting for people who will form a government. Many of them might have voted for Bertie Ahern, and switched to Eamon Gilmore before abandoning Labour in 2016 and scattering around the broad left.
McDonald’s relative youth and gender and her social and geographic background will convey a message of change. But that will go only so far. She will need to be different, as well as sound and look different.
Anyone who witnessed Saturday night had a sense that something historic was happening, whatever your view of Adams. But there is prosaic politics at work too.
As Adams would be the first to admit, the struggle goes on.